The Long Lasting Legacy of American Racism

The Long-Lasting Legacy of American Racism

If you are white and don’t make an effort to study the history of racism in the United States it can be hard to imagine just how serious the country’s racist past is. In an age where a black man has been president, where black sports stars have multimillion dollar contracts, and when clear outward displays of racism are (almost) universally condemned, it is easy to believe that racism is a problem of the past. In our country we place a lot of weight on the idea that the individual is responsible for their own success. Whether it is their financial success, their physical shape and weight, or their intelligence, we put the determination and responsibility of the individual at the center of how we understand people, and that doesn’t leave room for racism. We look at successful black people and argue that racism can’t be a problem now, because clearly some black people have become successful. Racism, our current ideology says, can’t be holding people back anymore. The only thing that can be holding them back is a failure to take responsibility for their own actions. Racism is simply an excuse in this view.
However, if you are not white or if you make any effort to study racism in the United States, you see the long lasting legacy of American racism and how it continues to shape the lives of people today. Exclusionary housing policies of the past, policing policies, and education policies are areas where racism deliberately impacted the lived experiences of black people in the United States, clearly limiting opportunity and less clearly limiting the potential to pass on wealth and knowledge to future generations. The results of this discrimination never truly left us.
In his biography of 20th century cartoonist George Herriman, Michael Tisserand explores how the long lasting legacy of American racism can be seen in the life and work of George Herriman. Writing about New Orleans around the Civil War, a time when Herriman’s grandfather and father lived in the city, Tisserand writes, “From 1879 to 1917, there were no city-run public high schools available for blacks. Robert Mills Lusher, the state superintendent of education, infamously declared that the purpose of education was for white students to be properly prepared to maintain the supremacy of the white race.”
Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles when he was 10, but throughout his life he hid the fact that he was of black and Creole descent. His light skin color allowed him to pass as white, and opened the door to a career in newspapers and comics. Without having light skin, and without having a family that could move him away from New Orleans, Herriman certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities he did in California, and racism would have been the limiting factor.
Without studying American racism, it would be easy to look back at a time when there were no city-run public schools for blacks about a hundred years ago and dismiss that fact as irrelevant for the world today. If it had simply been an omission to teach black children, then the situation could have been rectified relatively easy, and black education could have gotten underway to prepare black children for the future. However, the quote shows that benign neglect was not there reason why there were not any schools for black children. It was deliberate racism, in full force from the highest levels of education in the state, that limited the educational opportunities for black people. This malignant attitude created the lack of schools, and it was not simply a matter of establishing schools to facilitate black education.
Opening schools would have been step one, but this would have been done 100 years ago in a climate that was actively hostile toward black students. It is not hard to imagine that high quality materials, resources, and educational opportunities, the things we would all want in our own children’s education, would have been rare among any black schools opened in this type of climate. Once you see the type of animosity that American racism fostered, by influential individuals like Robert Mills Lusher (who there is still a school named after), it is not hard to understand the long lasting legacy of such racism. Deliberate efforts to hold people down and create a system of supremacy for white people is not easily overturned, even 100 years later. The deliberate delays of educating black people has long-term consequences, as it takes time for educational opportunities to come along and for the people who receive good education to grow, accumulate wealth and power, and further invest in their communities. White people had this opportunity starting well over 100 years ago, but black people did not. Black people could not pass on their knowledge, could not connect their children with people to help advance their careers, and could not take on jobs that would help them build wealth that would support their families for generations to come. Instead they were constantly put down, blamed for their own failure, and never give the public support that while people developed for themselves and over time restricted under the premise of conservatism.
Puzzling Over Wealth

Puzzling Over Wealth

We like to show off. We like to have nice things to impress other people, and we like when people notice our things, compliment us on our fancy stuff, and respect us because of the wealth that we have. It is an instinct that likely evolved as humans lived in small tribes. If you had an ability to accumulate resources, you could be seen as a valuable ally, and you became a more attractive mate. Those who were good at creating allies and demonstrating their value through resource dominance passed their genes along.

 

The problem is that we don’t have an easy off switch for our resource signaling behavior. Finding a partner, having children, and living comfortably might not always be easy, but the way we compete for these things is different in the 21st century than it was eons ago when our early ancestors were living in small nomadic tribes. Today many people have sufficient wealth to live comfortably and are able to get married and have children or even adopt without the need for overt displays of wealth. Nevertheless, all around us is the pressure to have more. We are tempted to spend more on housing, buy new cars,  take more impressive vacations, and signal our wealth through our material possessions. Without a real reason, we still push ourselves in a signaling game to show off our wealth, and as we do, our possessions and wealth steal the meaning and enjoyment from our lives.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger—in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.”

 

The pursuit of wealth for purposes of showing off and signaling leads us to have things we can’t enjoy. We become so fearful of losing our stuff that we lose connections with our communities and fellow citizens. We become willing to subject ourselves to longer work hours, worse working conditions, and lengthy commutes so that we can have nice things. We trade off the qualities of life that make it meaningful and enjoyable so that we can show off to others. In the process we become servants to our wealth, and rather than using the resources we acquire for a positive impact on the planet, we allow our wealth to have negative impacts on the planet and on our very own lives. We should puzzle over our wealth to ask ourselves what is needed for comfort, security, and to have a bigger positive impact on our communities and planet, rather than puzzle over our wealth in pursuit of more for ourselves.

Where You Live (& Are Born) Matters

Raj Chetty, a Harvard researcher, has done some pretty interesting work that shows that the zip code you are born into can have a huge impact on how much money you earn over the course of your life. Down to the neighborhood level, where you live, the people around you, and the connections you happen to make in life can be major determining factors in what job you take, what college your children attend, and how well off you end up financially speaking. We don’t like to address this very often, but we recognize that it is true, and we have seen increased segregation as we try to separate ourselves from living next to undesirable people and places.

 

In his book The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Tyler Cowen writes, “in 1970, only about 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods that were unambiguously affluent or poor. By 2007, 31 percent of American families were living in such neighborhoods.” We are moving in directions where we separate ourselves from people who are not like us in terms of socioeconomic status (SES). Today, relative to 30 to 50 years ago, we are less likely to interact with someone who is very poor if we are rich. We are less likely to know anyone who does not share a generally similar SES, and we are far less likely to have any meaningful interactions with someone from a different SES. Cowen continues, “for where you live, income matters more than ever before, as can be shown by a simple perusal of the apartment ads for most of America’s leading cities.” 

 

This segregation by home value and SES has some obvious consequences, such as schools becoming more segregated by income and race and skyrocketing home prices in some regions of town coupled with deterioration and disinvestment of other regions. However, as the research from Chetty shows, there are other, less obvious consequences from our SES segregation. Where you live influences the opportunities available to you and your children.

 

We like to think that it is our own effort, talent, and hard work which determines how much money we make and where we end up financially and in terms of the home we are able to buy. Since talent, intelligence, and work ethic are evenly distributed on a genetic level, we would expect that everyone could achieve the same ends regardless of where they happened to be born. Instead, we see huge disparities by zip codes and neighborhoods in terms of ultimate SES. Our segregation is leading to situations where those who are born in wealthy areas are able to make valuable connections, learn the unwritten rules of networking to getting ahead, and receive visible reminders of what can be achieved through hard work and perseverance. Certainly people from the lowest SES background can still network and can still see the benefits of hard work, but research also suggest that when people from the lowest SES don’t have any interactions with people who are economically well off and successful in their careers, they do worse.

 

Cowen argues that our segregation by SES is making us a less robust society. Partially because we are leaving other people out, but also because it narrows the world for all of us (not just those in low SES neighborhoods) and stymies innovation, development, and progress. We are comfortable in neighborhoods with people who have a similar background and SES to our own, but this does not help us better understand the world, does not help us advocate for and support policy which might help us and others, and does not help us identify and encourage the top talent born in our country. Our complacency as we all search for our own individual American dream is crippling the American dream that we share as a nation by segregating us into complacent bubbles.

Five Factors To Consider Regarding Our Donation Behavior

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin simler and Robin Hanson ask just how much of our behavior is influenced by our self-interest. As an explanation for why we do what we do, simply saying that we did something because we gained some material good, gained more social status, or received some type of pleasurable outcome is generally accepted, but ignored. It is clear that we have self-interest in doing things that we benefit from, but in many ways, we like to ignore self-interest and we prefer to explain our behaviors with more complex rationalizations for why we do what we do. This motivated reasoning, however, creates models that account for many factors without acknowledging the main factor that we would all rather ignore, the elephant in the room (brain), our self-interest.

 

Simler and Hanson investigate charitable donations in the framework of self-interest and consider the warm glow feeling that we get when we make charitable donations, help the person on the street, and generally do good things for others. They look beyond simply “we do things because it makes us feel good” and ask questions to get to a deeper level understanding of human behavior:

 

“The much more interesting and important question is why it feels good when we donate to charity. Digging beneath the shallow psychological motive (pursuing happiness), what deeper incentives are we responding to?

 

To figure this out, we’re going to examine five factors that influence our charitable behavior:
  1. Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched.
  2. Peer pressure. Our giving responds strongly to social influences.
  3. Proximity. We prefer to help people locally rather than globally.
  4. Relatability. We give more when the people we help are identifiable (via faces and/or stories) and give less in response to numbers and facts.
  5. Mating Motive. We’re more generous when primed with a mating motive.
This list is far from comprehensive, but taken together, these factors help explain why we donate so inefficiently, and also why we feel that warm glow when we donate.”

 

I have been writing a lot recently about charitable giving. Part of the reason why is because I see great potential in the resources at the disposal of the average American. We have a lot of wealth relative to the rest of the world, a lot of time relative to previous generations, and a lot of information available to us. However, rather than using our wealth, our time, and the information available to us to maximize our lives, make the world a better place, and solve pressing problems, most people waste their resources. I have continually been thinking about what I consider The Stupid Economy where we feel pressured to buy things we don’t really want to keep up with and impress people we don’t really care much about, and use our resources in pointless and meaningless ways.

 

Our world today has incredibly bright people working at meaningless jobs. We use a lot of our human potential, our creative energy and brain power, and our money to get people to drink sugary water. We invest massive amounts of attention in celebrity news and we celebrate technological inventions like iPhones without applying our hunger for technological improvement to other problems that could potentially save more lives or do more to protect the planet from human caused problems – like trash in our oceans.

 

I want to encourage society to move in a direction that is more considerate and careful with our resource use. I want to be part of something that builds toward a society that has a smart economy, where instead of complaining about the diminishing purchasing power of our society while simultaneously buying $100 jeans we celebrate the resources we have and put them toward real use to create sustainable development. If we are going to set out to do good in the world, we have to understand what Simler and Hanson describe in the quote above. We have to understand how our rationality is derailed, and we need to understand why it is important to be truly effective when we try to do good with what we have.

Mass Advertising

Have you ever wondered why you see so many advertisements for things you cannot afford? I hadn’t thought about this very much before reading Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain, but if you look around you will see tons of ads for expensive things that many of us won’t end up buying. I won’t buy a Rolex watch, but I can picture billboards and advertisements for them. I know the slogan that both BMW and Mercedes have at the end of their advertisements, but I likely won’t ever buy a either car. Why are companies like BMW and Rolex advertising to people like me who don’t have the money or intention to buy their products? Wouldn’t it be wiser for the companies to advertise to people who actually wanted and could afford to buy the things they sell?

 

“When BMW advertises during popular TV shows or in mass-circulation magazines,” write Simler and Hanson, “only a small fraction of the audience can actually afford a BMW. But the goal is to reinforce for non-buyers the idea that BMW is a luxury brand. To accomplish all this, BMW needs to advertise in media whose audience includes both rich and poor alike, so that the rich can see that the poor are being trained to appreciate BMW as a status symbol.”

 

Sure, we can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the car, the horsepower, the sport performance, and the quality of the interior, but a big part of purchasing a BMW is the status symbol. If the true reason for buying a BMW were the list of things we might give as reasons for purchasing the car, then advertisers would not need to make sure that everyone knew the car was an expensive way to show one’s status. Ads could be targeted to the people who really care about car aesthetics and performance, not to people who are just going to shuttle a bunch of kids back and forth to soccer practice.

 

I try hard to be aware of the pressures I feel when making purchases or considering new purchases. I try to understand that I am pulled to make a purchase to show off my status. I also try hard to understand that owning expensive items, having a large salary, and being economically successful do not necessarily define my value as a human being. Understanding what advertisers are doing when they show ads to mass audiences about things that demonstrate our wealth and should be seen (in the mind of the advertiser) as desirable helps me keep my focus on what matters – being a good person, producing value for human beings, and avoiding negative externalities that arise from my desire to show off. This is why I think it is beneficial to understand the mind and what is happening in our heads when we see a BMW advertisement. By recognizing what impulses the ad is targeting and understanding the human drive for status, we can redirect our money and energy to things that truly matter, and away from hollow status markers.

The Signaling Motives Behind Purchasing Decisions

Recently I have written about the way we use wealth and money to purchase things that signal something about us. The ideas for my posts have been from The Elephant in the Brain where Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which we intentionally deceive ourselves and others in order to gain something, demonstrate a quality about ourselves, or provide some type of message to others without needing to be overt about our actions. There are lots of things about our identity, our values, and our survival that work much better under the surface rather than explicitly addressed.

 

Our wealth and money can be signals for our identity, personal character traits, and group status, plus they can be used to purchase other things that further signal these things about who we are. What is interesting is how much we are not aware of these signals, and the extent to which we fail to recognize or acknowledge the drive these signaling mechanisms have in our purchasing decisions.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “as consumers, we’re aware of many of these signals. We know how to judge people by their purchases, and we’re mostly aware of the impressions our own purchases make on others. But we’re significantly less aware of the extent to which our purchasing decisions are driven by these signaling motives.” We go out of our way to make certain impressions on other people, to show that we are part of a certain group, that we truly belong in a particular space, and that we are competent enough to know what we are doing. We put a lot of effort into demonstrating something about ourselves, even if we don’t think we are.

 

Sometimes we are expected to make these signals, and sometimes we make them so that we can fit in with a particular group or identity that we want to adopt. Doctors might purchase fancy cars even if they have high levels of student debt and can’t really afford the car. Runners might buy particular sunglasses to look cool at the group runs, and many religious people might spend a lot on fancy religious jewelry to show off wealth and faith at the same time. The things we buy, or don’t buy, reflect something about ourselves, the groups we belong to, and our values. With some purchases we try to be as visible as possible – like buying a fancy thing at a charity auction, and with some purchases we try our hardest to hide the evidence of our transaction – like say paying off a porn actress to stay silent about an affair. The thing we purchase may be an approved way to flaunt our wealth and social value (like a Tesla), but it could also signal a moral deficiency or a selfish behavior. We don’t always acknowledge it directly, but many of our purchasing decisions have these qualities, and it is probably best to be aware of this signaling behaviors when we are making purchases.

Conspicuous Consuption

Conspicuous consumption is probably one of the most damaging aspects of American society. It involves using our purchases to serve as a way to show off a particular aspect of who we are want to be. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “the idea that we use purchases to flaunt our wealth is known as conspicuous consumption. It’s an accusation that we buy things not so much for purely personal enjoyment as for showing off or keeping up with the Joneses.”

 

Throughout the book Hanson and Simler look at human behaviors and consider them alongside the stated reasons, beliefs, and excuses that people have for those behaviors. There are many things in life that we do without acknowledging ulterior motives. We have motivations that lie beneath the surface and drive our thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We do not examine and acknowledge these motivations, but they are real, and they are there.

 

Conspicuous consumption is the use of our wealth and ability to make purchases in a way that is ostensibly about one thing, but very likely are about something else that we would like to keep hidden from others. When we buy a fancy new sports car, we will tell others about incredible new technology, about how hard we have worked and how we deserve to treat ourselves, or about the incredible performance of the car. What we likely won’t tell people is that we felt that we deserved more attention and wanted to show off that could afford a new sports car. What we won’t acknowledge, even to ourselves, is how much our behavior is driven by others and by a desire to fit in, be praised, and make sure everyone is aware of our beliefs about our personal value.

 

Each of those things (showing how much we fit in, telling people how valuable we are, and receiving praise) are aspects of social life that we can’t just go around and obtain directly. Instead, we have to signal those things through behaviors and activities that we can spin as more sociable and more acceptable behaviors. Money and wealth gives us a chance to show off and to signal our competence or connectedness to the outside world. It gives us a way to brag without having to outright brag. We can be more humble in the ways that we show off by being indirect.

 

However conspicuous consumption can drive us to ignore climate change and the externalities of our actions. It can create stress as we strive to make purchases that put us in perilous financial situations – the opposite of what the purchase is supposed to signal. And it is ultimately all about gaining more status at the expense of others who cannot keep up. We spend a lot of time and energy attempting to show off our wealth so that we can be rewarded not by the thing we purchase, but with praise and respect of others that we may not really deserve. We should acknowledge these pressures and chose when we are going  to be conspicuous with our wealth, and when we will exit the signaling contest avoid showing off.

Desires

A frustrating thing about humanity is that we get tired of what we have pretty quickly. A new house, a new job, a new car all become part of our normal and fade to the background just a short time after we have them. The newness of the thing and the excitement it makes us feel disappear, and instead of appreciating what we have, it just exists with us as we start to look at other things we want.

 

This is part of the human mind that kept our ancestors striving for more and pushing to live better lives. Part of this mindset drove our evolution and helped get our species to the place we are at today. But in each of our individual lives, we can take this too far. Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, has some advice with this in mind.

 

“Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them.”

 

We have all seen unnecessary and extravagant uses of money that seem more like showing off than anything else. What Seneca’s advice says, is that we should find a point where the use of money, the consumption of goods, or the continued accumulation of power just seems over the top. At that point of ridiculous extravagance, we should place a marker for ourselves saying no more. Over time, we should work to fit more things on the opposite side of that marker, constantly thinking about the things in our lives that are meaningful, help us live better, help humanity advance, or that just show off. The more we can be content without needing wealth to flaunt, the more we can live a meaningful life that we can enjoy. The limit we set can be at any point, which means it can be extremely extravagant, or it can be very modest. Learning to remember what we have and appreciate the things we have achieved and attained will help us as we place our marker which we do not desire to surpass.

Blind Desires

I think we need to do a lot more coaching with young people, starting early in high school, to discuss careers, ambitions, goals, and what the world is going to expect from young people once they leave high school or college and begin to enter the work force. In the United States, once we complete our education (and sometimes before our education is complete) we enter the job market and a world where we compete for jobs and compete for status. Our world becomes centered around a career that takes up 40 hours of our attention and focus each week. When we are not at work we retreat to our homes where we try to show the world what we have and how special we are. The goal for many of us become increasing what we have to show our high status. We want to go upward, to earn more, to be more, and to have more.

 

But why do we share this desire? Who sat down with all of us to tell us that what we must do is push ourselves in our career and become wealthy to define ourselves as successful? Who told us to all want more and more things? Why do we all desire more expensive cars, bigger homes, and a more impressive title? I would suggest that these are generally blind desires that we organize our life around without deep thought as to where these desires came from.

 

We should sit down with young people to talk about pitfalls of following this traditional path. We should talk to young people about research which seems to indicate that social interaction can be as important for happiness as ever expanding wealth. We should talk about the importance of not just building up our own career, but of building systems and communities that can bring people together, rather than just building up ourselves to show off.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago.” I don’t think everyone needs to abandon capitalism, stop working, and give up all desires, but I think we should be more considerate when we think about career decisions and the work we spend our time with. If we decide that we need a big house, an expensive car, and X number of material goods to be happy, then we will make career and work decisions that trade off our time, flexibility, possibly our health, and our relationships with others so that we can have these things. We should turn inward to make sure we are not pursuing blind desires and we should re-focus ourselves and our lives in a way that will help us find more satisfaction without needing to constantly one-up ourselves and others.

Collapse from Within

In the book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday includes a quote from Aristotle about success, ” Without virtue and training it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably.” Holiday includes this quote in a section of the book about Howard Hughes, the aviator, genius, and businessman who did some incredible things with his fortune, but ultimately crashed in a wasteland of his own ego. Hughes, Holiday explains, received a great deal of sustainable wealth as an inheritance from his father’s business and channeled that wealth into movie projects, a giant wooden plane that only flew once, and many other ventures that sometimes succeeded but more often failed to take flight.

 

About Hughes directly Holiday writes, “Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery. so much energy.”  A common story arc that we have likely seen play out in real life as well as in movies or books is of someone achieving success and forgetting to keep doing the things that brought them success to begin with. The drive to be great can become overwhelmed by thoughts about how smart, how hard working, and how much better than everyone else the successful person had to be in order to reach the goal they sought after. When that happens, it is easy to forget the habits that drove success and clear thinking is replaced by ego. The ego begins to tell us that we don’t need to work hard, that we should seek attention and praise for who we are and what we have accomplished, and it begins to cloud our judgement and lead us to believe that we will be successful no matter what we do.

 

Holiday also writes, “We know that empires always fall, so we must think about why–and why they seem to always collapse from within.” Howard Hughes collapsed from within. He received so much wealth that he could spend it on whatever caught his eye and he could pursue goals that in hindsight seem laughable. He could whip up a storm of enthusiasm about flawed projects and use his wealth to suggest that he would succeed, as if the wealth accumulation of the past had any bearing on his future success and insightful thinking. In our own lives, we must recognize what parts of us threaten success when we achieve it. If we fail to be aware of things we pursue on purely egotistical grounds, then we too risk collapsing from within. On the other hand, however, if we recognize the pull of the ego, we can push back and remain humble, helping us make clear decisions and continue to work toward goals that truly matter once we have started to feel real success in our lives.